#DirectedbyWomen Team Member Vida Zukauskas had a chance to talk with documentarian Ida Theresa Myklebost about her short Unwelcome, which provides a glimpse into the life of six-year-old Menwar and his family after they fled the war in Syria in the hopes of finding peace in Europe. The film recently screened at the Female Eye Film Festival and screens today at the Woods Hole International Film Festival as part of Shorts V: Choices.
DBW: It was great to meet you at the Female Eye Film Festival in Toronto. Watching the documentary film Unwelcome, I was able to view the struggles and pain in the children’s eyes. Was that your main focus in the making of the film?
ITM: The main purpose of making this film was to portray as truthfully as I could who these children are and what they are going through. I wanted to go beyond the “idea of the refugee”, the image many have of who a refugee is, beyond the scary rumors and fear, the numbers and statistics, and find the real refugees so I could give them the microphone to tell their own story.
As a journalist, it is important to me to try to stick to a neutral truth. In Unwelcome the audience are witnessing a pretty gruesome story of a six-year-old boy, whose life is very traumatic. He’s feeling chased and rejected, having the police run after him, his home (the tent at the gas station) crushed by tractors in front of him, fleeing with human smugglers. This all may seem extreme, but it is—EXACTLY—what we witnessed in the camp. It is exactly what happened. It’s this little boy’s real life experiences as a refugee in Europe in 2016/2017.
I hear many people talk about how scared they are of the refugees, how we can’t trust them, that they are potential terrorists or gold diggers out to exploit our welfare system or attack us. But the reality is that these camps are packed full of families and innocent kids. Kids like Menwar, a six-year-old boy, who loves to play football and thinks Superman is pretty cool, a boy who laughs and giggles when he pranks me while I’m filming, a child who sleeps in between his worried parents in a tent at a gas station, a kid who has fled from bombs as a victim, losing out on his childhood, a child we plot into statistical categories, worrying that these numbers might represent potential terrorists. He is not. He is six years old. He just wants to be safe, get a place in a school and play with his friends.
DBW: After being a journalist what made you decide to study and to go into filmmaking?
ITM: My background is in journalism, where I was fortunate enough to get a great opportunity and work with some of the most experienced journalists in Norway, covering international news. I loved it. But there was one thing that bothered me: the time pressure of modern journalism can easily prevent us from telling the full story and getting to know the story, situation, conflict, and not least the people the stories are about. Often, we can only scratch the surface, with less than 90 seconds to tell a story so it fits in with the schedule of broadcast journalism.
I wanted to look beyond the latest events, and the hard facts and statistics, and allow for my viewers to get close and personal with our time’s biggest humanitarian crisis. I wanted them to get to know one of the millions of Syrian refugees and through knowledge and experience understand the refugee crisis better.
I believe that we humans do not only learn through our brains, but through our hearts, and when you can combine that as you can in documentary film making, the magic of impact may occur.
DBW: Any memorable stories from the shooting of Unwelcome you would like to share?
ITM: As a journalist covering international news, you see a lot of devastating things coming through the media stream, and eventually you become sort of HERDET. When we first arrived at the camp in northern Greece, I took it all in: the broken tents, the mud, the many children running barefoot around the tent corridors. I was surprised by the amount of children there, but I did not become emotional over it. I observed the misery, but I was on a job and was focused on the shots we needed to get. For the next couple of days we worked hard on the production, and I maintained my professional role and avoided becoming too involved. On our last day in the camp, however, the police suddenly came to close it down. They wanted to remove all the refugees from the improvised and illegal camp they had built up, and fear started spreading through the camp—where are they taking us? What does this mean? Are we arrested? My co-producer and I watched as the chaos unfolded and the anxious, confused and scared refugees frantically packed their belonging and prepared for yet another escape. Menwar packed his football. You could see the fear in his eyes, the stress in his little body. But he tried to play it cool and put on a brave face.
I was holding the camera—filming the children as they left the gas station with their little back packs, saying goodbye to me, but because I was filming I couldn’t reply and so I just watched them leave in silence, just like the rest of the world. It felt very wrong, I didn’t want to play this game anymore. So I shut off the camera and I ran after them into the dark field. I caught up with the mother, who was pregnant going through all of this and so was falling behind the others. She broke down in tears as she sobbed, “You have to leave. You can’t be here. They will kill you. The human smugglers will kill you, if they see you here with a camera.” So I stood behind, as I watched the silhouettes of them running towards the forest. And that’s when it happened. I wasn’t a journalist anymore. I wasn’t a professional there to observe. I became human, and I just broke down and cried. I wasn’t sad. I was angry—furious that the world is watching this and letting this happen to a six-year-old boy, chasing him like a criminal, traumatizing him after everything he has already been through. These are children! Eventually, my co-producer found me. We were both in tears and very shaken up. At the family’s abandoned tent we found Menwar’s favorite shoes, his Superman shoes, that they forgot to pack in the chaos. They were resting outside the entrance of the tent as a reminder of the life that had used to be lived there.
We returned to our safe hotel rooms in the camp, being able to lock the door behind us and sleep in clean, safe beds, while Menwar, a six-year-old boy was running in the company of human smugglers in a dark forest with the police chasing him. It all felt so wrong, so unfair. Menwar’s story really got to me.
DBW: Are there any female filmmakers you admire and look up to?
ITM: As a filmmaker it’s all about finding your own voice and style, so rather than idolize already established filmmakers, I draw inspiration from their strength, determination and passion. One film I would like to highlight is Leslee Udwin’s India’s Daughter, which to this day is probably the film that has given me the most goosebumps and chills. It tore my heart apart. She has relentlessly gone after the truth in this shocking documentary, never giving up, persisting through a system that later would ban the film. She has managed to unveil the situation and expose the brutal situation for women in India in a mindboggling manner. I am very impressed by this work. It’s a masterpiece in achievement, and the result shakes you to the core. I had been recording a radio documentary in India just a few months prior to the awful rape that is the theme of the film, and I knew the situation well. Nonetheless, this film managed to shock me with it’s bare truth and honest answers.
I’d also like to mention Ava DuVernay’s 13th, which was incredibly engaging and provoking. I am especially impressed by the tremendous amount of research this film has required. And then Amy Berg’s Little Girl Blue, a truly splendid music-documentary about a truly splendid personality: my all time favorite—Janis Joplin.
DBW: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Thank you for taking the time for #DirectedbyWomen.
VIsit the Unwelcome Facebook page for more information about the film and future screenings.
My name is Vida Zukauskas. I am an actor, stand-up comic, writer, passionate about film, and working on a documentary. Thank you for reading.